If every cloud has a silver lining, coronavirus has brought plenty of time to rethink the way we do business. As their customers hunkered down and phones fell silent, travel advisors turned to one another for support—and their many conversations have ushered in new alliances that promise increased revenues for all the partners.
In just a few of the stories I’ve come across lately, Jackie Magid and three fellow ICs formed a “collective” where they pool sales under a unique IATA number, while also each keeping their own business. Paul Cathcart and Carol Andrews are splitting villa rentals in Europe. Claire Maguire, Nikki Dickerson-McGregory, and Shawn Graves are pooling resources to get better pricing and commissions on the over-water bungalows they are selling together. Christy Mahon and Nancy Shirey started a travel club; Lori Newbury and three partners launched a Facebook group that has given their customers the courage to hit the road again. Independent contractors Michelle Malliet and Kimberly England merged their agencies outright. And Angie Rice and Janet Semenova started an agency as well as consulting business for agency owners.
Arguably the most unique model is the one Jackie Magid and her colleagues, all ICs with the same host, put together in December. “We’ve always been close in terms of collaborating and traveling together on fam trips and sharing intelligence,” she says. “When Covid hit we started thinking about how to be more efficient and productive, and how to use the time more wisely until travel comes back.”
They did some consumer webcasts together and signed some new business. But the more they collaborated, the more they realized that bringing their skill sets together was the way to go. So they formed Worlds Away Travel, an umbrella under which they pool collaboration tools and talk to suppliers in a single voice. They switched hosts to Travel Edge, which was “very supportive of our independence,” Magid says, and had a hybrid category under which they could have a joint IATA number for their own bookings and those of their ICs, as well as their own businesses.
“We call it a collective,” Magid says. “Four heads are better than one. Two of us have law degrees, two have MBAs, I have a marketing and PR background, one is more techie. We are all equal partners, equally invested.”
It took months of planning to get it right; “it’s exciting and it’s fun, but you have to work well with each other in terms of personalities. It’s about being with people who have the same work ethic as you and a team mentality,” Magid says. “The minute we did the press release we sent a blast email to all our preferred suppliers to come meet us, and we’ve been booked twice a week since then. Jennifer built this amazing intranet where everyone shares intelligence and hotel reports and fact sheets. We feel very organized. So far, so good.”
Sharing the Risk
Paul Cathcart’s partnership with Carol Andrews of Andrews Travel in Nashville is less formal. They’ve been working together since they split a week-long private villa rental in Tuscany a couple of years ago. Cathcart, owner of Never Travel Solo, which specializes in tours for singles and solo travelers, and Andrews each guaranteed 12 clients—and each sold out within one day. The next year they did two one-week trips back to back, and sold out again.
This year, they are planning to bring 30 clients each to a 12-bedroom villa on the Amalfi Coast. He will sell the first week, she will sell the second, and they will do the spillover on the third. For 2022, they are looking at the French Riviera or, if France is still closed, perhaps a private yacht in Croatia.
His tip to others planning a partnership: Know each other’s strengths and weaknesses. “I’m really good at the trip planning. And she’s not afraid to reel me back and say no, we can’t do all that.”
It helps to really like each other, too. “We call each other every other day to chit chat. I’ve worked with other agents on and off, a trip here and there, but I really wanted to find someone to partner with long-term,” he says.
With villa rentals running $25,000 and up for a week, and a 30%-35% deposit, “we are forking over $21,000 for next year, completely non-refundable. When you start thinking about that it’s pretty scary. But if you go in with a partner, it’s much less intimidating.”
The success of the partnership will allow him to handle fewer groups—perhaps six or eight a year, instead of a dozen, so he finally can spend more traveling himself. “My dream is to do four weeks each in Tuscany and the Amalfi Coast, and nothing else,” he says. “And if anyone wants to partner with me on that, you are more than welcome.”
In Florida, meanwhile, Lori Newbury and three friends were facing a dilemma: they had parted ways with the online blogger from whom they had been buying leads—and got to thinking, “Where the heck are our leads going to come from now?”
So the four—Newbury plus Amanda Blanco, Jennifer Hall and Savannah Shinn, all of Magical Enchanted Vacations Travel—decided to start their own company, with one public Facebook group and one private client group that they all share. “That group saved our year,” Newbury says. “We share about ourselves and our lives—and the clients seem to really love that.”
Over time the stories they told, and the stories their clients posted in return, bound the group into what feels like a true friendship. Three clients met up in person this year at Epcot and have traveled together twice since then. Now 20 are planning to meet for a weekend at Epcot—many traveling for the first time since the pandemic. “Some haven’t traveled yet and are feeling a little nervous, but they are bolstered by the thought of traveling with their friends,” Newbury says. “The group has really changed them, and now they are talking about going to Europe and all-inclusives. They have encouraged each other to look at things they considered impossible. Having that private group of clients makes them feel like they can dream bigger than they can in public groups.”
Each of the agents still has her own agency; Newbury’s is Cruise and Tour Experts in Orlando. When a lead comes in through their Facebook page, though, they handle it round-robin style. “We still have a long way to go to be where we want to be—at our highest point before Covid, we were each booking $600,000-$700,000 a year; we’ll get back there. We’ve had a really good start to 2021, I feel like we’re recovering faster than we thought we would. And I know I, myself, am a little over $200,000 for this year already, and I’m pretty happy with that.”
Christy Mahon and Nancy Shirey, friends and owners of separate Dream Vacations franchises, are also launching a travel club, #LetsGetTraveling Forum, “a private Facebook group for travel enthusiasts to find inspiration and learn about destinations,” as well as a series of “Let’s Get Traveling Together” land and cruise group vacations they will lead together.
Starting a Company Together
Michelle Malliet and Kimberly England just took the leap together and merged, creating MEP Vacations in Derry, NH.
“To start our own company on just one IATA number was not going to be enough. But bringing our numbers together was,” England says. “I trust Michele whole-heartedly; we work really well together. We Zoom call once or twice a day, but we’re not on top of each other.”
“We play off each other’s strengths and complement each other,” Malliet says. “We talk things out and go with the best option; neither one of us is stubborn. We treat each other like one of the family, we go on fams together, we get along great—and that’s the best part of it.”
Combining their sales and getting competitive commission rates has allowed them to bring on two new ICs. Perhaps the best part is the emotional support, says Malliet. “It was tough through Covid, where we were just canceling things constantly. But we have each other—we have someone to talk to, we’re not in this alone. We focus on the things we can do, and let go of the things we have no control over.” When England had to cancel a $40,000 cruise, Malliet cheered her up. “She’s my partner, just like my husband. We work together like a marriage—I call her when I’m having a hard time, or if I don’t have the answer,” England says.
Claire Maguire, owner of Cruise Planners, Island Girl Travel and Vacations in Dunmore, PA, met her partners, Nikki Dickerson-McGregory of Nik of Time Travel and Shawn Graves of Centsible Travel and Vacations, sharing a taxi at CruiseWorld a couple of years ago. They became friends, shared information, and went on fams together. When she recently certified as a Tahiti specialist, only to have her fam canceled due to Covid, she reached out and suggested they just put together a group of their own.
That worked out so well they are planning a Celestyal cruise in Greece, and one in Brazil/Argentina together. “It’s just like a really nice sisterhood that we’ve developed, where we keep each other motivated. One of the best things about the travel agent community is the camaraderie and the help; it’s a win-win,” Maguire says. “I came up with a web page, we do different collaborations on our marketing and promotions, and it helps us get the commission on the group space. We’re doing over-water bungalows and it helps us with the buying power, and lets us do some really special unique excursions, because we can afford to hire a boat and share the costs. And we’re not competing, we have completely different markets and client bases, and our clients develop friendships we can use for future trips. Camaraderie sells trips.”
Meanwhile, Janet Semenova, a certified health coach, and Angie Rice, a CPA, were both at a point in their lives when they wanted to do something entrepreneurial, something adventurous. Friends since their boys played football together, they both had a passion for travel. And while starting a travel business seemed overwhelming for each individually, they got to thinking that combining their resources could make it a viable option.
“You have to share the same why,” Semenova says. “We both are extremely hard working and have a lot of integrity and honesty and respect for one another; we are focused on the bigger picture versus our own individual needs. We speak multiple times a day, and we listen to one another rather than waiting for things to escalate.”
When a cold call comes in from social media or word of mouth, they determine who is the better fit. “Some months I generate more revenue and some months she does, and we also respect everything we each do for the business. I do the social media, more of the video that runs on the local news because I don’t mind being in front of the camera, and Janet does the accounting. Our mantra is elevate, delegate responsibilities to one another when they are not our strengths, replicate what works and take away what doesn’t. Our math is: 1 + 1 doesn’t equal 2, it equals 5. What we can accomplish together is much greater than we each can accomplish alone.”
Besides selling travel, the pair also has started Centered CEOs, a consulting firm for small-business owners, where Semenova focuses on “the mindset of running a business without getting overwhelmed and overworked,” while Rice “works on the analytics of creating a successful business.”
For those considering a partnership, Magid suggests to put down on paper where you see yourself in 5 or 10 years. If you are interested in working with others, consider what you want them to bring to the table.
“For us, it was being more productive,” she says. “I’m on the board of a non-profit, and there it’s all about looking at our individual skill sets and our fit and finding a nice balance. And that’s a good idea for any new company.”
Cheryl’s 40-year career in journalism is bookended by roles in the travel industry, including Executive Editor of Business Travel News in the 1990s, and recently, Editor in Chief of Travel Market Report and admin of Cheryl Rosen’s Group for Travel Professionals, a news and support group on Facebook.
As an independent contractor since retiring from the 9-to-5 to travel more, she has written regular articles about the life and business of travel agents for Luxury Travel Advisor, Travel Agent and Insider Travel Report. She also writes and edits for professional publications in the financial services, business and technology sectors.